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Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Theories: A New Religion?

"Simulation is the situation created by any system of signs when it becomes sophisticated enough, autonomous enough, to abolish its own referent and to replace it with itself."

-- Jean Baudrillard

Baudrillard tells us that we've entered hyperreality, sometimes defined as the more real than real. It seems an odd concept, yet perhaps we can find a good illustration in the proliferation of conspiracy theories. 'RL' - Real Life - is often associated with accidents, cock-ups, laziness, ineptitude, bad luck, unforeseen circumstances, unintended consequences, coincidences…a miasma of mess, muddle, disorder, chaos, unconnectedness. Cause and effect exist, but not in a simple, satisfying way.

People don't like the unadorned real. We're always looking for patterns that make sense: easy-to-understand cause and effect. Even when we look at the clouds, we imagine we're seeing definite shapes (like faces or animals) rather than amorphous blobs. We can't help ourselves - our minds are wired that way. When we can't find obvious cause and effect, we're left baffled. Even distressed. But our anxiety is relatively easy to cure. We simply invent an appropriate cause and effect and impose it on the problematic situation. The more cause and effect we can cram in, the happier we are. We feel we are understanding the world. We resist the notion that the truth, in a form we can grasp, is not out there. There must be some comprehensible pattern of cause and effect that explains everything.

Enter conspiracy theories. Nothing's an accident. Nothing's a cock-up. There are no lone nutters with high-powered rifles. Mad people don't do mad things. Instead, everything is rationalised, put in a nice, tidy box and tied up in a lovely pink bow. The gift-wrapped parcel is presented to the world and everyone nods and smiles because now the world makes sense. Sanity restored. Everything does have a sensible cause.

Of course, there may be many inconvenient facts that don't support the various conspiracy theories. But isn't it those who are in on the conspiracy who manufacture those 'facts'? Six million died in the Holocaust. 'Who says?' the Holocaust deniers ask. 'Jews say,' is their answer. Why? To promote a Zionist agenda. And aren't the Jews secretly controlling the world? Weren't we told so in the secret protocols of the elders of Zion? Those were forged, of course. But by whom? Well, by the elders of Zion, naturally, to cunningly disguise the truth.

To tell the truth of the 'Jewish conspiracy' is, according to the Holocaust deniers, to be accused of believing in a 'proven' forgery, which was not forged at all, but deliberately distributed as a simulated forgery.

Nowadays, no one can ever discuss the 'Jewish conspiracy' for fear of being branded anti-Semitic, and credulously and perversely accepting forgeries…which was the whole point of the forgery in the first place. Except, as noted, it wasn't a forgery, but merely a simulation of a forgery. The genius behind this conspiracy!

Well, that's how some people see it, and there's nothing you can say or do to change their minds. And even to try is to demonstrate that you're part of the conspiracy.

There are those who claim that facts can dispel conspiracy theories. What planet are these people living on? As Nietzsche said, 'There are no facts, only interpretations.' He might have come up with an even more extreme formulation: 'There are no facts, only misinterpretations.'

Facts have long since stopped being objective, real things. (They are ultimately nothing but electrical signals in the human brain in any case, assuming we accept the facts of science.) Facts, we now realise, are beliefs. They can be used to support anything. People hold religious beliefs precisely because 'facts' are so malleable. You can pick your own from all those on offer. You can disregard every fact you dislike. It's a precondition of faith. (Was Jesus Christ the Son of God? The Son of Man? Did he raise people from the dead, and rise from the dead himself? Are thesefacts? Or was Jesus Christ actually Yehoshua ben Yosef, who didn't perform any miracles, and was an ordinary human being? Did he even exist?)

Conspiracy theories operate in the same territory. These are belief systems too. Nothing can overcome them. Indeed, it's a prediction of Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory that the more conclusively people's beliefs are refuted the more likely many of those people are to redouble their faith in their disproven beliefs.

You see, it's all hyperreal. Conspiracy theories, like religions, offer much more emotionally satisfying explanations. They close the big, scary, open-ended questions. Who, other than rational people, wants to believe that a drunk driver in a Paris tunnel killed Diana Spencer? Her followers won't accept that. So all hail the elaborate conspiracy theory. She died for specific reasons, for a rational agenda - not because of some cheap and vulgar automobile accident of the type that happens scores of times a day all over the world. No, that simply won't do.

The dinosaur thinkers who write books 'disproving' conspiracy theories better get real. Or rather hyperreal. Their ludicrous facts became extinct long ago, assuming they ever existed in the first place (which they didn't). There's no point in discussing the truth or otherwise of conspiracy theories. It's as futile as trying to disprove religions.

Religious believers often say, 'But you can't prove that God doesn't exist.' They never tell you what they would accept as proof. And in fact, they would accept nothing. Same game with the conspiracy theorists.

Of course, we're all familiar with the very first human conspiracy - when the first woman talked the first man into stealing an apple from a special tree: the Tree of Knowledge. The facts never got in the way of that conspiracy, did they?